COMMERCIAL AWARENESS – BUSINESS LAWYER’S SECOND NATURE
Every aspiring lawyer heading for an interview in a city firm is figuring out how to present their “commercial awareness”. In the sea of fantastically educated candidates with impressive work history, some bank on it as a feature that will separate the sheep from the goats. Yet, showing that one has a good understanding of the business environment beyond referencing The Financial Times can be tricky. Commercial awareness is a broad and dynamic concept. It includes familiarity with factors affecting the success of an enterprise, industry know-how and the ability to look at a legal issue from the client’s perspective. What is more, it’s best acquired through experience. Still, to possess commercial awareness is a must for any lawyer serving business entities – companies and entrepreneurs – whether in private practice or at a global firm. It matters not only at the interview stage. It is a practical requirement, considering that clients expect to act upon legal advice which is aligned with achieving their business goals. So much so, that commercial acumen in lawyers is nowadays deemed a given. In light of the legal market’s transformation, with emphasis on the business of law, the bar has been raised. Today, a hallmark of a good lawyer is to take commercial awareness to the next level – and show that you are a “T-shaped lawyer”.
In case you were wondering: is it a matter only for the young, future lawyers? No. It is a necessity for all lawyers who want to stay relevant, client-responsive and #futureproof.
LEGAL EVOLUTION: WHERE “I” BECOMES “T”
For decades, a classic outlook on professionals used to follow an “I-shaped” model. It focused on mastering, almost exclusively, the key competencies of the individual’s trade. For lawyers, this meant legal knowledge and skills. At its core, this combo consisted of:
(i) traditional, subject-matter, expertise in law; and
(ii) its subservient abilities (legal research, analysis, writing, and advocacy).
In time, just like a dot over the letter “i”,
(iii) business know-how (aka “commercial awareness”); and
(iv) soft skills
have been added.
Nevertheless, still, the concept revolved around a professional with narrow, yet deep and highly specialised prowess in their field, with only some sprinkling of the other, non-legal skills. This fit well with the longstanding legal ethos – for centuries, an insular, inward-facing guild. Despite many side effects, such as a rather paternalistic approach to clients and indeed any “non-lawyers”, this sole focus on the law was turned into a staple. As times began to change, especially following the financial crisis – in the new reality of “more for less” with clients demanding process improvements in the delivery of legal services; the classic model of a legal professional was put under scrutiny. Right away it proved insufficient vis-à-vis the needs of modern legal buyers. A new type of professional has been rising through the ranks across most business fields. These versatile executives expected to meet their counterparts in their counsel.
THE RENAISSANCE MEN OF THE DIGITAL ERA?
As is frequently the case – law is late to the party, lagging behind most industries. Talk of the “T-shaped professionals” in the business world has gone on for decades. Some reference a 1991 article by David Guest in The Independent titled: “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing” as its introduction. Others mention McKinsey in the ’80s as its birthplace. Regardless of the exact origins, the term and, most of all, the idea it represents caught on. Individuals with broader skills and knowledge who were able to link up various perspectives, different information sources, and experiences, for the benefit of delivering their services and/or products, became sought after and widely appreciated. Fast-track to 2000s: with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, T-shaped workforce has become a necessity, rather than a noble role model from the highest echelons of C-suite. Hence, an expectation to adopt this approach in law voiced by legal buyers. With a varied toolkit, lawyers should be more likely to deliver strategic business input and add value participating in crucial business processes. A “T-shaped lawyer” was coined (by R. Amani Smathers in 2014). Ever since the concept has gained gravitas. It remains widely popular in academia and practice. Leading institutions adjust their curriculum to the goal of graduating well-rounded alumni. Similarly, it is coming to be a new legal ethos within law firms. It’s their method to fulfil the clients’ need for more than solely legal advice. General counsel – as those closer to the business; are already familiar and walking the talk.
So, what does it take to be a T-shaped lawyer? How to become one? And, most importantly – why is it worth your efforts, given a significant investment?
In this post, we focus on why, while in the upcoming part 2 on the remaining aspects (specifically, that post will delve into details on who is/what it takes to be T-shaped and how to get there).
A CARROT & STICK: WHY SHOULD YOU STRIVE FOR BECOMING A T-SHAPED LAWYER?
In case you’re not yet convinced that to be a good lawyer today one needs to be more than “just a lawyer”, here are some carrots:
At the most important level: your client needs and expects his/her counsel to be more than just a legal adviser. It appears that the T-shape skillset leads to it. Therefore, if you want to align your offer with the clients’ business needs (match the supply and demand) you simply have to. If you won’t – there are others who are already aligned and ready to take over. It’s a whole segment of the market focused on the business of law delivery (find out more here). Never forget, the customer (aka client) is the boss. In the new legal market lawyers no longer define the legal function. Buyers do. What follows is a change in whom to satisfy – not anymore the firm nor its partners, but clients.
job market’s fit (jobseeker’s/employee’s unique selling point)
A rendition of the point above. Needless to say, if you do not deal with clients directly, your firm – or the one you want to work for – does. All in all, law is a service industry. Hence, as clients expect a more holistic treatment from their lawyers, organisations serving them want to deliver. Law firms and departments look for T-shaped staff. So here, you can convert this interest into a hire. Given a growing demand for T-shaped professionals the trend is clear: the more T-shaped you become, the higher your chances for landing a great job. Having much more to offer than legal expertise creates a unique selling point, especially if it includes technological competencies. Despite all the talk about bridging the skills gap occurring in the digital economy, competition is still low. So, you maximise the potential for success.
There’s more good news! Ongoing, the higher you progress in your career, whether on law firm or in-house counsel paths, the more diverse your responsibilities. General counsel especially assume roles outgrowing purely legal duties, shifting towards strategic advisory. Although nowadays most in-house lawyers, not only the GC, are expected to fulfil many not-strictly-legal tasks. These include risk and crisis management or data governance. Once again, the varied toolkit and experiences come handy.
Besides the straightforward and prosaic benefits for your career, there are also some more fundamental advantages of becoming T-shaped. These evolve around personal growth (however, it so happens that they, too, positively impact your career, albeit in a less immediate manner).
Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – is frequently considered the single most important quality of modern professionals. In short, it’s because while many tasks are being automated, the resulting products and/or services are still consumed, ordered and assessed by human beings. Human beings are driven by emotions, purchase decisions included. Machines – although efficient and less prone to error; are still incapable of understanding or applying emotions (though getting better at it). So far, empathy remains irreplicable and unique to humans and some animals. Hence, to successfully conduct any business whose customers are human… empathetic human beings are mandatory. That’s because empathy allows us to be understood by and understand others (ours and their needs, constraints, drivers), function well in a diverse society and create added value. In business, it leads to strong referrals, loyal customers and more engagements (sales). Being T-shaped, by nature, means greater awareness of differing viewpoints and familiarity with various ways of addressing the needs of colleagues and clients. Hence, it gives you the ability to become more empathetic, and this, in turn – be more successful and, frequently, more fulfilled.
A close second to empathy. In the age of automation and AI, creativity is the new productivity. Similarly, given that machines frequently can do better (and more cheaply) many tasks, especially those repetitive and mundane, human beings are freed up to do what only humans can: be creative. People are expected to be strategically creative. Yes, even in law. Why? Data shows that there is a definite positive correlation between creativity and business results (as McKinsey reports). Creative entities (companies and individuals) outperform others on financial metrics. They are also the most innovative. As observed by Albert Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”. The creative types try, fail, try again, improve, iterate – and frequently finally succeed in their endeavours. Or learn. Yet isn’t law – a discipline formalistic and formulaic by nature – and creativity like night and day? Not entirely. Creativity can positively impact both the business of law, as well as the practice of law. It’s necessary to design and drive change where it’s needed (and in law, there’s a lot of room for improvement!). It allows to be on a par with your clients, understand each other. Most importantly – it augments the core task of a lawyer, the art of advocacy, persuasion and, indeed, any communication. Thinking outside of the box and brainstorming will lead you to formulate better arguments and strategies. It can improve your storytelling, so you convince the audience (a judge, tribunal, client) that your narrative prevails. Finally, many tweaks borrowed from the creative industries – such as modern ways of presenting data, simplifying complicated processes and breaking them into easy to comprehend and beautiful visuals – can help you win your case. It so happens, that creativity lies at the core of T-shaped professionals, driving their actions. Also, just like a loop, varied skillset and experiences feed creativity. Perpetuum mobile.
A bonus: creativity is crucial to the development of memory and analytical abilities – so, it shapes your core legal skills, too.
Universally sought, given that it’s commonly accepted that innovation leads to growth and is necessary for progress. It transpires that frequently T-shaped individuals – or even more so teams of such individuals whose core expert knowledge and skills vary and complement each other between them – are a source of innovation. That’s because a T-shaped mindset and competencies allow for fostering the diverse connections and conversations that spur creativity (the first, ideas-generating, stage of innovation) and then safeguard the implementation phase of the problem-solving process. For lawyers it appears to be especially important – given that most improvements and real breakthroughs or even “perceived innovations” (as what is considered innovative in law, frequently is a standard elsewhere in the business) come from venturing outside of the legal world. Observing, exchanging, borrowing. This is the process of becoming a T-shaped lawyer: building on, layering. Therefore, with open minds and rich in varied experiences and competencies, T-shaped lawyers are likely to be the leaders of the true legal innovation. Also, lawyers are trained to be problem-solvers. Innovation’s goal is to solve problems. Then that should be a match.
Should you consider passing on the journey “from I to T”, there are a few sticks. Mainly, while focusing solely on deep specialisation in the legal subject matter and skills, you are minimising your chances for a career change in anything else than in law. It also makes it harder to develop skills needed for successfully running your own business and dealing with customers (even if the business is a classic practice of law, just going solo). Your competitiveness – on the job market and as a legal service provider to clients – is, to a large extent, lower. Your adaptability to work within diverse teams and suitability for the tech-driven reality of the digital economy are undercut. It looks like in the nearest future those fittest who survive and thrive will be those who possess the traits largely consistent with the T-shaped model. This refers to law, too, and especially the delivery of the legal function for the business.
Last but not least on the topic of “why should you…”, let’s address some “buts”.
First, almost the opposite concept has been popular, especially in law. Namely, that to differentiate yourself amongst the many lawyers (so, to be competitive and successful in acquiring clients) an individual must specialise in their chosen field of law. Equally, it states, firms that do well focus on a specific legal area (think boutique firms – experts in a particular area of the law through which they stand out and can offer improved service consistency and reduced prices to their clients). This “specialisation notion” is largely true, yet with some reservations. For starters, before you can practically specialise or even discover what is your field – you will and should become familiar with various areas of the law. More so, whether in big law or, even to a larger extent, in sole practice – you will be expected (by superiors and clients) to have broad general expertise. And so, specialisation feels like an opportunity reserved for more senior lawyers. Most importantly though – remember that deep expertise in one field is not contrary to the T-shaped professional ethos. T-shaped lawyers possess precisely this deep expertise in one field of legal knowledge combined with general legal skills – yet they also have the required familiarity of other systems workings, as well as skills and knowledge of processes from these “non-legal” fields. In sum, legal specialisation is desired, yet it shall not come at the expense of becoming more versatile (as it’s not an “either/or” case).
Second, no one can excel in everything. Nor should anyone want to be the jack of all trades, master of none. The T-shaped lawyer model doesn’t mean merely dabbling in all these varied skills. Neither does it necessarily require achieving mastery in each. It rather calls for knowing how they work as systems and applying some best practices and methods into delivering legal services. This level already allows for a more creative approach to solving legal and business problems for the clients and/or for the ability to cooperate with individuals whose core expertise is not legal. Still, the knowledge and skills in law are mandatory. T-shaped lawyers build on them while remaining experts in the law. Only that they’re “upgraded” to be able to effectively tackle the challenges of the globalised and digitalised world, as the “non-legal” toolkit equips them for it.
Third, this is a concept for lawyers who advise and represent clients, especially business lawyers. It is not relevant for the other representatives of the legal profession, like judges or legal scholars. The T-shaped lawyer is indeed the most relevant for a counsel, whether in-house or in a firm. Yet, with the omnipresent technologisation of law, including in the realm of serving justice and conducting and presenting legal research – the “non-legal” T-shape skills will undoubtedly enrich all legal professionals’ toolkit and make them more future-ready.
Last, a question occurs: is T-shaped lawyer the most up to date model that one should bid on? Isn’t it already getting replaced by some version 2.0 elsewhere? The answer: yes and no, but more on the side of “not really”. You might have read about some other professional competencies models. For example, in the arena of natural sciences, a “key model” is described as a successor of T-shaped professionals. For business, especially in agile practice, the “next-gen professional” is E-shaped (as in Expertise / Experience / Execution / Exploration). Another proposal is “X-shaped” – which refers to leaders who gather T-shaped team members and manage them to deliver business results.
In law particularly some proposals for the T-shaped lawyer upgrade occurred, too. In 2017 F. Garcia suggested a “Plus-shaped lawyer”. This model contained an additional box over the horizontal stroke of the T – transforming the T to a plus sign (+). This new part contained “critical interpersonal and empathy skills” along with recognition of the “value [of] diversity and inclusiveness.” Most recently Thomson Reuter’s Natalie Runyon together with Prof. Alyson Carrel and Shellie Reid of Northwestern Pritzker’s School of Law published a white paper titled Adapting for 21st Century Success: the Delta Lawyer Competency Model. The Authors teamed up with a group of influential American law school professors focused on educating #futureproof lawyers (including Bill Henderson, Dan Linna, Cat Moon and Gabe Tenninbaum) and turned into the representatives of the legal profession to gather their insights. The research is ongoing, however with partial results published, it is already acclaimed as the “next big thing” by the legal innovation luminaries, like Jordan Furlong.
— Jordan Furlong (@jordan_law21) November 15, 2019
In light of the above, it is understandable that one wonders whether these are all, in essence, the same thing, just with different names; perhaps some dry theories or even a next academic fad. More so: does it even matter to strive for becoming T-shaped if before one acquires all the extra skills and knowledge there will be some new standard to which we’re all supposed to adhere to?
Becoming well-versed in the competencies identified as mandatory for the digital economy and the future of work is necessary for those who want to grow, professionally and personally. No matter the name or theoretical envelope – these skills are largely consistent with those included in the horizontal T-stroke (design thinking, technology & data, business knowledge, risk and project management). Being dynamic and responsive to the changing business and social environments, they develop. And so the Delta Competency Model is precisely that – it builds on the T-shape concept, mirroring the transforming legal market’s needs evolution. Therefore, we at the Blog, begin with presenting the T-shaped lawyer model and will shortly follow with the Delta, so our readers can expand their toolkit and stay up to date. We believe that the direction of Delta is spot on, adding the personal effectiveness dimension, as well as some ways of teaching and monitoring the competencies. Yet, for now, given that (i) T-shape skills & knowledge form part of the Delta; (ii) the exciting Delta research is still in the making; and (iii) law, as slow to iterate, didn’t yet catch up and the talk on the ground (aka your firm) is still mostly on the T-shaped lawyers – that’s what we deliver with this post and its second part.
Most importantly, the trend is clear: the law is finally drawing level with the more innovative industries. It responds to business and personal development’s needs. This phenomenon is upskilling. Upskilling is, at last, being adopted in law.
To be future-ready lawyers need to expand their toolkit beyond the purely legal knowledge and skills (with the caveat of remaining experts in their core field of law). The lawyer’s job is, largely, to solve problems. Given that most problems get more complex and wicked, the legal playbook needs to evolve. Acquiring the competencies highlighted in the T-shaped lawyer model will equip you with the skills required in the digital economy and modern society. So, we commence the learning for life and upskilling journey. Start with reading our next post, guiding you on how to reach your destination: a fulfilled, #futureproof legal professional. And let’s enjoy the road!
Looking forward to comments and questions – get in touch! Thank you for reading 😊
Karolina Jackowicz is a (re)inventor. With analytical mind – lawyer by education. As curious and empathetic spirit – mediator by profession. At heart, driven by creative urge with a get-go attitude – a habitual process improver turned manager, serving as legal tech start-up’s CEO. When not on the road: swimming, reading or walking basenji Amiś.